What do lions eat?
EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD
What do lions eat? Practically any animal they can catch. But most of their victims weigh 50-300 kg (110-660 lbs). The most common prey are zebras, giraffes, pigs, cape buffalo, antelope, and wildebeests. And, of course, they're happy to eat human beings as well. Most prefer their humans with catsup, mustard, pickles, lettuce and a little mayo on a sesame bun. (Just kidding!)
The incisors of a lion (left), which are long, sharp and slightly recurved, are excellent tools for grasping and wounding prey, while the sharp premolars are effective in tearing away chunks of flesh. The molars are rudimentary because their food is swallowed in chunks, unchewed. The skull (above left) has large surfaces for the insertion of the powerful jaw muscles.
A single lion kills about 15 large animals each year, filling out its diet with carrion, as well as kills made by other members of the pride. Typically, in the wild more than half their food comes from scavenging.
Male lions usually leave almost all of the hunting to the females, but once a kill is made, they will sometimes drive off the females and cubs in order to be the first to feed upon the prey.
Usually, several lionesses, working as a team, spread out and approach a herd from different directions. They stalk up as close as possible, using every bit of available cover before making a final charge, going for the closest individual. There is a rush and a leap as the lion comes in range of its victim. But, although lions can reach a top speed of 60km/hr for short distances, their prey usually escapes (only about one stalk in six is successful).
Typically, a lion kills a large animal by strangulation, biting down on its throat or, sometimes, on its nose and mouth. Small animals are killed with a bat of the paw or a quick bite to the head.
What do lions eat in the zoo?
Zoo lions are given mostly beef, sometimes including beef bones. Other types of flesh are also fed, for example, horse meat, but this is much less common. And in a pinch, keepers will occasionally feed these big cats a nice, plump visitor. (Just kidding again!)
One of the most useful lion adaptations is the ability to gorge huge quantities of flesh during the relatively brief periods when a kill is available. This helps to tide it over during what may be long stretches without access to food. A lion eats as much as 40 kg (~90 lbs) in a single meal — an incredible amount. For comparison, an average human eats only about four pounds in a whole day. Quite an appetite!
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